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Mark Canha has open road to Oakland A’s outfield

Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

During the offseason, it was difficult to gauge Mark Canha’s place on the Oakland A’s depth chart. He had a spot on the team as a role player at the beginning of last year, but after missing basically the whole season it was fair to question whether he’d have to work his way back up from Triple-A — whether that meant physically shaking the rust off or merely re-proving himself.

There is no longer any real mystery, though. The A’s haven’t made any official announcements regarding the final spots on the Opening Day roster, but it’s pretty clear that Canha will get one of them. That’s especially true now that Jake Smolinski is out of the picture indefinitely due to shoulder surgery.

Even before Smolinski went down, Susan Slusser’s article two weeks ago about Canha trying out in CF implied that he was the fourth outfielder while Smolinski, et al, were competing for a potential fifth spot. Either way, though, a glance at the remaining depth chart in the A’s spring camp illustrates why Canha has an open road to a roster spot:

Mark Canha (R)
Jake Smolinski (R) (injured)
Alejandro De Aza (L)
Jaff Decker (L)
Chris Parmelee (L)

Other depth options already reassigned to minors: Jaycob Brugman (L), Andrew Lambo (L). Kenny Wilson (R), Max Muncy (L), and maybe Matt Olson (L) and Renato Nunez (R).

The A’s have three obvious starters. From LF to RF, they are: Khris Davis, Rajai Davis, and Matt Joyce. However, the left-handed Joyce fits best as a platoon player, which means carrying a right-handed partner as the fourth outfielder would be optimal. With Smolinski out, Canha is literally the only option.

(For the potential fifth spot: It’s always good to have a backup option in CF, especially when your starter is 36 years old and doesn’t hit much to begin with. A lefty would be ideal in that role, to offset the righty Rajai. In other words, De Aza or Decker. But that’s a topic for another post.)

Smolinski out

Before we look at Canha, let’s consider what the A’s lost when Smolinski got hurt. His calling card is that he’s a lefty masher, with a career 138 wRC+ against southpaws. For that reason alone, he may have made the most sense as the fourth outfielder — Canha is probably the better option as an everyday player, but the job in question only requires hitting against lefties (when Joyce sits), making Smolinski the better fit. He’s a specialty guy and this was his perfect niche.

Meanwhile, there’s nothing lost on defense. Smolinski is probably slightly better in the corners than Canha, but not enough to make a significant difference — both of them are fine. I don’t want either of them playing CF except in a mid-game injury scenario. (Canha actually brings extra versatility at 1B, though Alonso and Healy probably have that position on lockdown for now.)

Reverse splits: Not a thing

With Smolinski out of the picture for now, though, Canha is the only right-hander who can platoon with Joyce in RF. That means we need to address a weird fluke that came out of his 2015 rookie season: reverse platoon splits. He posted a 128 wRC+ against righties, and a 65 against lefties, and when that’s a player’s only MLB data point it can be difficult to ignore.

But please, ignore it. First off, platoon splits don’t work in that small of a sample size, with just a couple hundred plate appearances per side. Secondly, looking at the bigger picture, he displayed normal splits the previous three years in the minors, from High-A up through Triple-A.

But most of all, there is an anecdotal reason why the numbers turned out the way they did in 2015 beyond just pure randomness. Early in the season, when he was in a strict platoon role, he was suffering from an extended illness that visibly affected him. You could tell just looking at his face on TV that he wasn’t right. Then, later on, when he was back to full health and the team was in tank mode, he moved to an everyday role and faced primarily righties. That means his L/R splits could more accurately be described as his sick/healthy splits.

Don’t take it from me, though. Last spring, I asked Canha about this very thing, and here’s what he said:

I think that was just a fluke. … In general you just see a lot more right-handed pitchers than left-handed pitchers, but I think it was the fact that I was platooning and facing more left-handers at a time when I was struggling. I wasn’t playing very well, before the All-Star Break, and when you’re only playing against lefties and not playing very well your numbers are gonna go down against lefties. So that’s the only logical explanation I have. And then later in the year I started hitting lefties a lot better and started hitting homers off lefties. So it got better, which is a good sign. ...

[Regarding the illness]: Yeah, absolutely. My energy levels were really bad, which is huge in baseball. You’ve gotta feel good in order to be confident and I didn’t feel good for about two months. So it was tough, but you’ve gotta play through that sometimes and it’s just another thing you grind through and work through it.

Now, that doesn’t mean he’s suddenly going to turn around and mimic Smolinski’s mastery of southpaws. The point is that he’s regular ol’ right-handed slugger, which means that putting him in a role in which he only faces lefties will be neutral at worst and maybe a slight positive at best. If anything, I’m more curious how he’ll respond to playing only part-time, since I see him as a guy who will be at his best if he gets to play every day (with the question being whether he can produce enough to earn that distinction).

In 2015, Canha managed a 107 wRC+ and 16 homers in nearly 500 plate appearances, and that was as a rookie getting mostly sporadic playing time at four different positions and spending at least a third of the season fighting an illness — and he’s still only 28. That’s enough to make him worth another serious chance, and with no one around to block him it looks like he’ll get it right away.